Mid-March, Marietta, Montana
“Fake it till you make it,” Flynn Bensen muttered under his breath as he marched the short distance from his designated parking spot to the front door of the Crawford County Search and Rescue Headquarters. “Here goes nothing.”
The nondescript prefab building sat a stone’s throw from the Sheriff’s Department, which possessed more gravitas given its brick facade. In the four weeks since arriving in Marietta, Montana, Flynn had spent the bulk of his time in training, meetings, and an inconveniently timed regional workshop in Missoula preparing to take over the job of Commander of Crawford County SAR, a division of the Sheriff’s Department. With three permanent employees, six on-call EMTs, and a volunteer staff of over a hundred during the high season, Flynn would have his hands full.
As he did now. Literally.
He’d bought the biggest box of doughnuts the local bakery had. Bear claws and apple fritters to maple bars and jelly-filled doughnuts. Sugar on steroids. The smell made his saliva glands kick into overdrive.
He dashed up the three-step rise and, balancing the box on the palm of his left hand, grabbed the lever-type handle to twist and pull.
It twisted but didn’t give as he expected. The cold of the metal burned his palm and he let go, cursing under his breath. Gloves. He’d left them in the truck. The cold never felt quite this bitter in Tennessee.
“You’re not in Tennessee any more, buddy boy,” he pictured his brother, Ryker, saying. “But, spring is coming. I promise.”
He glanced around at the piles of gritty-looking snow outlining the parking lot. He’d seen a few hardy—or foolish—sprouts of green on the sunny side of a few homes, but in the month since his move from the Great Smoky Mountains, which had been his home for nearly ten years, he’d felt winter’s arctic blast more than once.
The weather was the least of Flynn’s worries at the moment. It would play a huge role in his job, he’d been told. But, his chief goal today was to meet and greet his staff. Something he couldn’t do if he couldn’t get inside.
He noticed a warm yellow light spilling from the two curtained windows bracketing the door. Someone was inside.
He used the corner of the bakery box to push back the cuff of his heavy jacket to check his watch. Seven. The exact time he’d asked everyone to meet him here.
Managing personnel. That was what kept him awake at night lately. He’d been an employee of the National Park Service for most of his adult life. He’d moved up the grades by way of good reviews, not from a burning ambition to call the shots. He’d learned at a young age from his very successful father that work defined a man. Good or bad. His father’s credo had been, “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing to the best of your ability.”
That early teaching might explain why Flynn’s younger brother, Ryker, was a world-class photographer, but it didn’t address the reason for Flynn’s reluctance to move into a managerial position…until now. At thirty-two…soon to be thirty-three.
He reached for his keys, which he’d clipped to a belt loop—a practice he’d gotten into after leaving them in his truck once too often. Unhooking the clip one-handed stretched his balancing abilities but he finally had the cluster of keys in hand. He located the one he thought fit the front door of the building.
He’d just inserted the key in the lock when the door suddenly burst outward, making Flynn step back. The heel of his boot hit the metal threshold between the ramp and the porch. The big box wobbled as he reached out to keep from cartwheeling backward.
“Oh, shit,” a woman’s voice said.
No shit, he silently seconded. He didn’t recognize the voice or the woman in the doorway but his first impression hit hard and fast. Pretty. Amused.
“Save the doughnuts,” he barked, juggling the box in her direction.
“Oh, hell, no.”
She reached out and grabbed his right forearm and held on with a strength that surprised him, since she was half his size. The box tipped and fell, but given the short distance between them, it only dropped as far as Flynn’s waist before his rescuer pulled him to safety.
The box lodged vertically between them. His left arm automatically wrapped behind her back. His right clasped between her hands. The top of her head, which reached just about to Flynn’s chin, was pointed down.
“Wow. Good catch. You brought doughnuts?”
She let go of his arm to take hold of the box before looking up.
Oh, I am so screwed.
Laughing green eyes. Intelligent, too. Full of piss and vinegar as his mother might say. The kind of eyes that had proven to be Flynn’s downfall more than once in the past—especially the recent past.
“Yes. From the bakery.”
“Cool.” She stepped back and spun around, box in hand. “Guys, he brought doughnuts. Ken never did that.”
Flynn figured out her name by process of elimination. She wasn’t old enough to be Janet, the main dispatcher, and the third woman designated for that task couldn’t make the meeting because her child was sick. She’d called at five to tell him.
That left Katherine Robinson. “She goes by Kat,” the County Personnel Director told him. “Single mom. Moved here from Texas. Started as a relief dispatcher. Got a permanent spot when Margie Crain retired at the first of the year. She’s good. Only thing keeping her from applying for your job was her son. She didn’t want to take time away from him.”
Flynn hadn’t asked for details. He believed in letting people tell their own stories. And he had a feeling Katherine Robinson’s story would be one he’d enjoy hearing.
He stomped the slush from his boots, re-clipped the keys to his belt loop, and then stepped inside.
“Good morning,” he said, unzipping his jacket. He’d dressed to impress—khaki cargo pants and long-sleeve red T-shirt with the SAR logo on the chest pocket. The color combo of SAR’s official uniform, he’d been told.
He glanced around. Not a single other red shirt among them.
“Thank you all for coming in early. I’d hoped to connect with each of you before this, but the Sheriff had other plans for me.” He kept his tone light with just a hint of irony. He knew how the system worked, as did these seasoned veterans, he was certain. “But you’ll be happy to know we are now the proud owners of the complete 2015 Emergency Response Handbook and FEMA’s Emergency Response to Terrorism, volumes I and II, if you need a little light reading.”
“Welcome to our world,” a tall, skinny guy with a shaved head and trim goatee said. Dressed in a standard issue navy blue paramedic jumpsuit, the fellow took a giant bite of a powdered sugar doughnut he’d plucked from the box Kat Robinson passed around. Residual white granules snowed across his broad chest.
After shoving the final bit into his wide mouth, he advanced toward Flynn, dusting sugar from his hands. “Brad Johnson. EMT.”
The other five paramedics, one in uniform and four in street clothes, followed suit. Four men, two women.
Flynn had read the performance reviews of every member of his team. It had become clear within a few pages that his predecessor had obvious favorites. Katherine Robinson was not one of them. Flynn wondered why.
After shucking his coat and hanging it up on a designated hook, Flynn shook hands with each of them. He tried to fit a face to the names he’d studied last night. Brad, Jeff, Kermit, Mike, Brenda, and Kerry. The ambulance service was contracted with the County Sheriff’s Department and didn’t fall under Flynn’s control, per se, but since the two teams worked closely together and space in the jail was at a premium, the EMT crew used a section of the SAR building for their base of operations, too.
“I look forward to getting to know each of you. If you have any ideas for making SAR run more smoothly, I’d love to hear them.”
“Just let us do our jobs,” Kat Robinson piped up from a spot behind the dispatch desk.
“That’s the whole point, isn’t it?” Flynn asked.
He felt the tension in the room as he walked to the coffee station that had been set up at the back of the room. Instead of grabbing a cup, he turned and looked at the group. “Let’s clear the air.”
He took a breath and let it out. “I’ve read the reports. I have a general idea what went down with the previous administration. I’m not a bureaucrat by nature. I’ve been on fire lines long enough to know that you don’t make it back if you’re not all playing on the same team.”
His last close call hit that tripwire of memory. A “flashback,” the shrinks called it. He used willpower to keep the images at bay. “I’m hoping we can be a team that puts our rescue calls first, but each other a close second.”
The silence made him wonder what he’d just stepped in? Piles of old loyalty? Land mines left by the previous toxic administration?
Kat Robinson came to his rescue. She stood and clapped. “Call me an optimist, but I have a good feeling about you.” She looked at the others. “How bad can he be? We already had the worst.”
The cold, flat tone of her voice told him there was no love loss where Kenneth Morrison was concerned, but he watched the face of the other dispatcher for her reaction. The senior woman wore a nearly unreadable mask. She reminded Flynn of his mother, who over the years had perfected her “iceberg” look, as Ryker called it. “All you ever see with Mom is the tip of the iceberg. It’s what’s underneath her smile that crushes your soul when it hits.”
The woman—Janet Haynes, Flynn believed—was fifty-seven. On the tall side…five-foot-eight, maybe. Not extremely overweight, but most of the extra pounds had settled in her backside. Her voice carried when she said, “Kenny did his best. And he’s not here to defend himself.”
Her eyes narrowed in an unattractive squint as she turned to face Flynn. “We had a team. We did good work. One mistake and you go down in flames. That’s what living and working in a small town, with small-minded people, will get you. I have two years left for my thirty, then I’m outa here. Just so you know.”
Got it, Flynn thought. Don’t expect to find you on my team either of those years.
The others? Time would tell. Associations, favorites, who-was-screwing-whom would shake out and reveal itself soon enough. In the meantime, he had an agenda of his own to put in place.
He walked to his office, a small cubicle near the restrooms. He might have thought it was a janitorial closet if not for the filing cabinets and Internet connection. The only window faced the interior, so he could keep an eye on his underlings, apparently.
He’d printed out a welcome letter-slash-questionnaire last night. “Utterly cheesy,” Ryker called it.
“Smart and heartfelt,” Mia, Ryker’s fiancée, had countered saucily.
As he passed a copy to each person, he said, “You’ll see a couple of team-building exercises listed here, including a zip line adventure a buddy of mine is setting up. The initial course will be open in mid- to late-May, depending on the weather, with the full course completed in time for summer tourists.”
“Do you plan to invite the volunteers, too?” Kermit asked.
“To each of the training exercises? Yes. To the team-building excursions? No.”
The two female EMTs had their heads together talking in muffled voices. Flynn couldn’t get a sense from their body language if they were pleased or pissed.
“Look,” he said, “I’m coming into a very well-oiled machine. I get that. I’m not planning to make major changes to your established protocol any time soon. I want to use the next couple of months to observe and get a feel for how you operate. I’ll probably respond to every call. Don’t freak out. I won’t be doing formal evaluations. I merely need to see how we react to 911 calls and what I…we…can do to improve our recovery success rate.”
He carried his thermal mug to the coffee urn at the back of the room. He didn’t have any diehard ideology he felt compelled to press upon them. But his last boss had taught him a few things about being a manager, and now was Flynn’s time to try implementing them.
“You’ll see I included my schedule this week. I will do my best to be available if anyone wants to talk. But to break the ice, I’d appreciate it if you’d each return your questionnaire for a quick one-on-one chat. Consider it your chance to tell me what you think works best about this unit’s present protocols and what you think needs changing.”
He made a sweeping gesture. “I left a job that I loved to move nearly two thousand miles away to take a job that pays less and is completely outside my comfort zone, so obviously change doesn’t scare me. Feel free to make a list.”
Everyone nodded, except Kat Robinson, who was already scribbling like mad. Somebody knows exactly what needs changing and she isn’t afraid to say so, he thought, forcing his eyes to look away from her pretty auburn head bowed so intently over her work, like a student taking the SATs.
Flynn’s gut told him he was going to like her—even if his mind cried, “No way, buddy boy. You know what happened the last time you fell for someone you worked with.”
His ex-wife, who was happily remarried and living in the house Flynn bought with his first inheritance. He’d let her pick the “house of her dreams’ thinking they’d be living in it together. Wrong. Schmuck that he was, he didn’t see the writing on the newly painted walls until she broke the news she’d never really gotten over her first love, who was newly single and well…sorry, Flynn.
He wasn’t going down that road again. Ever. Ryker had encouraged him to start looking for a house sooner rather than later. “Things don’t stay on the market for long around here, Flynn. Even if you decide to rent instead of buy, you need to get out there and look.”
They both knew Flynn’s temporary living quarters in the back of Bailey Jenkins-Zabrinski’s jewelry shop were just that—temporary. Ryker, too, had made use of the cozy rooms for a few months when he first moved to Marietta. Now, Ryker and Mia were building a new home on the lot he and Flynn had inherited from their father. With the money Ryker paid for Flynn’s share, Flynn decided he could be picky and find exactly the right spot that called to him. No bride with a hidden agenda would take half of it in the divorce. Because if Flynn ever fell in love again—a very big if—he planned to think with his head, not his libido.
End of Excerpt